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Iowa dumping grounds
(Wacky / Ridiculous / Coming-of-age)MEMOIR
The toilet was standard, factory white porcelain. Although the seat and cover were missing, the silver lever remained intact, along with a steel-braided hose dangling from the tank like the tentacle of a metallic squid. Rust stains bled from the screws, and the interior was warped and stained from years of hard use, a juvenile juxtaposition against the glossy exterior reflecting amber in the setting sun as the toilet - slightly askew - nestled comfortably in my front yard.
I stood over this abandoned contraption, mind whirling through the numerous possibilities of its advent, when my dad threw open the window and enlightened me.
“That’s the work of one of your idiot friends,” he hollered. “You get that thing outta here!”
My dad was never one to keep up with the Joneses – in fact, he had always been one to provoke the Joneses - but I didn't have time to contemplate this sudden change in neighborly aptitude. Daylight was dying, and I had a bulky piece of hardware to dispose of.
I ran through the rolodex of local depositories in my mind, but emerged with one viable option; the only dumpster in town familiar enough for me to feel ‘safe’ tossing in such a commodity. After all, I’d have to classify this sort of disposal as, shall we say, lightheartedly illegal. In the rare offenses where my life has graced such misdemeanors, I’ve always erred on the strength in numbers theory, that way if you get caught, everyone shoulders the blame; a perverse team lift, if you will.
I pulled out my flip phone, pressing both the dial button and toilet lever. The ghost of a smile dusted my face as I placed the phone to my ear and simultaneously watered the front lawn.
The Fareway grocery store sulked in the middle of town, flanked by an old Hardee’s converted to office space on one side and a low-income apartment complex on the other. They sold fresh meats, pastries and produce, and inordinate amounts of Busch Light. Many of my friends had moved off to dorm rooms or rental houses, but I remained, commuting to the bigger city for my training; running pipe and pulling wire in nasty grain processing plants with surly old men. It was a shock to the system, starting a career at age 19, considering it was only a few short months ago that I was bagging groceries here at Fareway.
I eased into the parking lot as the last wisps of daylight faded behind the horizon, then backed into the spot adjacent to the dumpster and waited. No more than a minute passed before the crimson body of a Monte Carlo rolled into the lot, Nemmers stoic behind the wheel. Though short and athletic, Nemmers fancied cupcakes above all else. This combination transformed our dear friend into the original dad bod long before the term rose to prominence. He worked Fareway’s produce aisle, preferring the solitary chopping of fruit to the endless bagging and forced interactions with other human beings. Oftentimes, Nemmers would peek out from behind the coolers and, spying no customers within oratory distance, would scurry out with his cart, quickly restocking the empty shelves as if on the heels of a storm, and return to his confinement without conversation.
This time, however, Nemmers had company.
The passenger window rolled down. “Do you have the goods?” asked Cody. Nemmers preferred silence, so when he had to communicate, he’d bring a friend.
I motioned toward the back of my Dakota. “See for yourself.”
The pair exited the Monte and hovered over the side rails of my truck, Nemmers flaring his nostrils, as was his way. “It’s a toilet all right,” he confirmed, and pulled a pair of rubber gloves from his back pocket.
I climbed out of the cab, popped the tailgate and jumped into the back. The others followed suit. We stood over the toilet; the orange parking lot lights gleaming off the porcelain made it look almost human, like a tired old man at the end of his days. Nemmers and Cody wrapped their fingers around the bowl.
“It still works,” I said, a taste of melancholy on my tongue. They must have sensed it too, for they relaxed their grip and stood upright.
“It almost seems a waste,” offered Cody. “To throw away a perfectly good toilet.” The darkness played tricks on my eyes, for the bowl looked back at me and offered a pitiful, open-mouthed smile, as if to say, “Why me?”
Nemmers’s pragmatism kicked into gear. “Do you need a toilet?” he asked.
“Then what would you use it for?”
It’s moments like these that define us, separating the alphas from the rest of the pack. Where some shine under athletic prowess, building businesses, or climbing figurative ladders, I can say that our contributions to society never came in the form of tangible goods. Rather, what we offered humanity was of little monetary value; the absurdity of the young and the restless.
“Let's take dumps in it,” I said flatly.
Cody and Nemmers were taken aback. “What? Why?”
“Not for real, mind you.” And I offered them a glimpse into the dark recesses of my mind. “There’s a half-naked guitar guy who stands in Time Square every day. Women flock from all over to take their picture with this man.” And I looked up, a flame of brilliance smoldering in my eyes. “This could be our half-naked guitar guy.” I bent down, running a hand along the porcelain, not unlike a lover’s caress. “Instead of holding a guitar,” I finished, “we pull our pants down and pretend to defecate.”
I’m not sure under what spell I put them, but to my astonishment, the pair agreed that this was a cavalier idea. We hauled the toilet out, placed it between truck and dumpster, and opted for a test run. Cody and Nemmers looked away while I dropped my pants and squatted. The first thought to strike me was not how bizarre two young men snapping photos of another man sitting on a toilet in the middle of a parking lot on a crisp Friday evening was, but rather how insanely frigid porcelain gets in October.
Had this been today, we could've easily snapped a photo and been done with the gag, but this was the mid 2000’s, the dark ages of cell phones, where if you simply wanted to type the letter Z in a text message, you had to press the 9 button an agonizing four times.
Nemmers's flash wasn't working and Cody's camera was being grainy.
I’d hear the shutter, followed by, “Nope, that didn’t come out,” or be lit up by a brief flame of white, then catch a groan of disapproval. This carried on long enough that a middle-aged couple walking a dog happened by. I'll give the boys credit, they at least huddled awkwardly in front of me like a pair of penguins keeping warm, so that the strangers merely saw my bare legs sticking out before hurrying away.
Eventually, we got the photo, and with it a newfound sense of purpose. We were excited, hopped up on adrenaline and youth, and hungered for more, but we knew the Fareway parking lot could not contain this fledgling idea.
“Then where will we go?” asked Cody.
“Take it to the streets, boys!” I shouted, and we hopped in the truck and peeled out.
'The streets' turned out to be Chuckles's house, as he lived a mile out of town with no neighbors to poke suspicions or call the cops. We killed the lights before pulling into the gravel drive, parked behind the horse barn and moved in. As we suspected, the glare off the TV shed light enough into the kitchen to make out Chuckles, who was currently going through an ESPN phase, lying on the floor watching endless clips of useless commentary.
He may or may not have been sleeping as we hauled the toilet onto the porch. I grabbed a newspaper laying on the stoop, dropped trow and spread open the paper. The flashes blended well with the flickering TV screen, and before we knew it, we were hauling our toilet back to the truck and cackling like a pack of hyenas.
The first dump was taken, the first victim had fallen, but never would we have guessed what would happen in the days to come.
Our biggest obstacle with our toilet runs was our inability to take quality pictures, and fast. Not all of our friends lived on secluded city limit roads – if we were to get them all, speed would be of necessity. Currently, our regiment consisted of a primary and backup flip phone, a flashlight, and three or four takes to get the shot. This would never hold up. Our first thought was to schlepp our problems off to our friend Hot Bill - who was renowned for his techno prowess - to root through his mad-hattery of technology for a superior alternative, but we had one big problem.
Hot Bill was off to college.
Still, electronics ran strong in the blood, so the following Friday night, we stormed the Goeke household and beseeched his little brother, BJ.
"Hmm," pondered BJ, fingering his chin after we had explained our conundrum.
"There's room for a fourth man," I said, sweetening the pot.
BJ brightened. "Let me see what I have." He rummaged through his mom's birding bookcase, eventually producing a fine specimen.
"A digital camera," gawked Nemmers.
BJ smiled. "Eight megapixels, half a second flash delay."
“My, my,” I breathed, placing the object in my hand.
"Dusk is upon us," piped Cody.
I'll admit nothing, except that we paraded around town like a gaggle of convicted perverts out on bail. Doorsteps couldn't contain us. We snapped photos at the local park, in front of the town welcome sign, playing tennis and washing cars. And when it was all said and done, we knew we had something special. The world needed to know who we were, and what we had done.
"What, exactly, is this?" asked BJ, as we stood under the glow of the Fareway parking lot lights, leaning against the bed of the truck and reflecting on the night. “And who, exactly, are we?”
Cody leaned in and prophesied. "We are The Toilet Warriors."
With those words, I felt a newfound destiny come upon me; a heightened awareness, a steeled resolve. "We're the founding fathers," I said. "The original four."
And then, as if on cue, Nemmers jumped into the scene, announcing himself while karate-chopping an invisible enemy. "Nauseous Nemmers!" he shouted, and in turn, we followed suit with our own retarded martial arts hand motions.
Clenching teeth. "Crappin' Cody."
A quivering fore-arm. "Bleedin' BJ."
Double fist pump. "Dumpin’ Dan."
Word got out, and fast, thanks to MySpace. For those of you too young to remember this website, allow me to explain it via math formula. Automobiles over horse and buggy equals Facebook over Myspace, only MySpace was much trashier, and a thousand times more obnoxious; horrid fonts and blinding text colors, and the music - God help us - the songs people soured their spaces with.
What we had here was something much larger than four fools and a toilet. This was a bomb that couldn't be tucked away in stored files on our computers or held back by the insufferable flaws of MySpace.
We launched the website the following weekend.
Whenever we pranked each other with E-foolery, we generally reverted to our old free friend, .homestead.com. In fact, our earliest attempt at such joshery was thenemmers.homestead.com, which sought to find the truth with its anonymous poll; does Nemmers's head really resemble a male organ, for that was the height of our junior high wit. For the record, 90% said yes, with one dissenting vote.
Those petty days were long behind us, and we knew .homestead.com lacked the professionalism of what we needed. We got a real URL, without extra binary, but it would cost us. After the 30-day free trial, we had to shell out $17 a month. An obstacle, yes, but we'd cross that bridge when we came to it.
www.iowadumpinggrounds.com broke onto the scene as an instant smash hit. The primary focus was on The Toilet Warriors, each with our own page and photographic evidence of our accomplishments. But perhaps the most significant aspect was the link dedicated to others, an almost afterthought that transformed into our very own farm system.
We called this the Guest Dumper Program.
They'd hang out in the Fareway parking lot like migrants looking for work. "Me! Me! Pick me!" they'd shout, and we'd ease by in the Dakota, scouting for new talent. An array of young blood stood (or squatted) before us – sloppy teens with nothing better to do, exuberant as they plead their case, some even holding props like toilet paper, TIME Magazine, or a crochet set. It was only a couple weeks after we'd launched the website when I spotted an intriguing and familiar face in the crowd. I slammed on the brakes.
"You there, step forward!"
The young man looked around, then did as he was told. As he moved into the light, his features were revealed. He was stocky but capable, with ear gauges and a recklessness that blazed in his eyes.
"McCutcheon?" gawked Nemmers from inside the cab. "The Infamous Bandit of Swagosa Hill?"
"Indeed," I said. McCutcheon had long been a compatriot of ours, strumming guitars and banging drums, launching water balloons out the back of rolling pickup trucks, throwing open the doors of complete strangers' and pig squealing into their homes, but his thirst for mayhem made him unpredictable. I recalled our last gag together, where he took the reincarnation of The Macho Man Randy Savage a little too seriously. They say he walks the streets at night, I remember some pedestrian saying of his antics, calling out cowards and giving people fashion tips. But what had started with a trio of benign railroad hats and a ridiculous rap CD blaring out the speakers of a red Monte Carlo ended with peanut butter forced down the throats of his enemies and McCutcheon, with sinister delight, withholding the milk. Nemmers nearly succumbed to the madness of Swagosa Hill, narrowly thwarted by our friend Potter, his thick lenses, impeccable timing, and unreasonably sandpapery hands - a story for another day.
I thought about all of that, and despite McCutcheon’s propensity to take things a little too far, knew that what he brought to the table might be exactly the secret sauce we needed.
“Hop in!” I demanded. The rest of the hopefuls sighed at the prospect of waiting another week. As the crowd began to disperse, a red Blazer with spinning rims and chest-vibrating beats pulled into the lot. The tinted window rolled down.
"Yo Dan," spoke Dubz, his voice matching the rhythmic bass. "Word is you guys are going dumpin' tonight."
I nodded. "Every Friday."
"I want in." Dubz preferred dark jackets, Timberland boots, and spoke in a husky, jagged whisper. Unlike the rest of us, Dubz wasn't native to our small town. Instead, he hailed from the hard-knock streets of Big City, Illinois, where they lifted cars on the weekends and staunched cigarettes with bare tongues.
"Well," I said, "There's an application process, you'll need to sign the waiver, go through an interview, standard procedure."
"C'mon Dan,” he pleaded. “Just let me ride."
I shrugged. "Sorry man, we're just letting McCutcheon debut tonight – we can't get too big too fast."
"But I wanna be Duking Dubz!"
"We all want to be Dukin' Dubz," I said. "But we have protocol now. Come back next week and I'll see what we can do."
Dubz darkened. "I see how it is," he said, and sped off.
Behind me in the white Grand Prix, Cody honked. We rolled out and towards our destination, which had been strategically scouted earlier in the week. Fifth Ward Park was renowned for its cracked tennis courts, unforgiving cattle-tank basketball rims, and a score of playground equipment. We pulled into the gravel lot with a sense of excitement and dread – if we were caught, the punishment for our actions was more severe on public property. Wasting no time, we hopped out and made all haste towards the slides. Our toilet running – serially practiced in the backyard – was nailed down to a science; two men, hands under bowl and supporting the tank, and an awkward side-by-side cantor. The plan was to lug the toilet all the way to the top of the nearest slide, but no matter how we angled the thing, we couldn't work it up the tiny, child-sized ladder. Thinking on the fly, Nemmers and McCutcheon held the commode halfway up the slide, while I inched down and haphazardly climbed on top.
"Close your eyes," I advised, and squatted. I pulled out a giant lollypop for good measure, and the pair released.
Thankfully, the porcelain came to a halt on the edge of the slide before dumping off to ground level. BJ reviewed the picture, and when he gave the thumbs up, we moved on to defiling the rest of the equipment, the tennis courts, even the drinking fountain. Eventually, we came to a halt in front of the teeter-totter.
"You’re up," I said to our guest dumper. "And grab your cigars."
Cody plopped on one end of the seesaw while Nemmers and I steadied the potty on the other. McCutcheon, balancing precariously in the axis, slowly climbed towards the toilet, but as he inched closer, it became apparent that our geometry was off. Nemmers darted to the other side to counter the weight, leaving me to balance the toilet with McCutcheon bearing down. I should have volunteered for the other job, for I couldn't dare close my eyes as McCutcheon bared himself and mounted the throne. When the damage was done and all was steady, I let go and handed over the lighter.
"Quickly now," I instructed. The teeter-totter was, well, beginning to teeter and totter. McCutcheon struck a light and puffed a few rings into the air. BJ whipped out the digital camera and snapped away. The latrine began to wobble, and I knew I couldn't wait for BJ's ok. I rushed into the shot, grabbing the bowl and a handful of his McCutcheon’s hide.
"Lessen the weight!" I shouted. Cody and Nemmers panicked, letting off the totter and throwing The Bandit of Swagosa Hill into the dirt where he sprawled on the ground, dreadfully mooning us all in the act. But he was in one piece.
So was the toilet.
"Got it!" shouted BJ. Just then we heard the shrill ring of distant sirens. We nabbed the can and hurried back to the truck. As I climbed in, I noticed a note under my windshield, but didn't have time to read it. We rendezvoused back at the Fareway parking lot to decompress.
Before we delved into the details of the evening, I grabbed the note off my windshield, and as I read it to the group, a slight chill trickled down my spine. Tread carefully, you've made enemies.
Iowa Dumping Grounds was going viral, spreading beyond our small town and into the regional colleges. My sister even mentioned to me that an old acquaintance who still attended The University of Northern Iowa had shared the glory of this website with her. “Oh yes, I’m quite familiar with it,” she had bemoaned. “Dumpin’ Dan is my brother.”
Meanwhile, BJ reported high traffic at Maquoketa High School during study hall – so high, in fact, that they had actually banned the site from all computers.
It was all happening so fast. I didn't know what was next for us, only that we keep calm and dump on.
McCutcheon’s heroics on the seesaw were the thing of legend, and tonight, they would be rewarded. After pulling into the Fareway parking lot, I announced to the group and all the potential guest dumpers, "Gentlemen (for there were no ladies here), let me introduce you to the fifth member of the Toilet Warriors. McGriddles McCutcheon!"
We clapped and cheered, but as I scanned the crowd, I didn't see Dubz or his red Blazer. I had hoped he would come to his senses and join us, but perhaps he had given up, or simply forgotten. Or worse, a dark part of my mind spoke, instantly conjuring up the anonymous tip. I couldn't shake the feeling that something bad would happen.
Acting on a whim, I changed gears and declared to the groupies, "Everyone, get in your vehicles, you're all coming tonight!' There was a whoop and a huzzah, champagne was popped and confetti rained down from somewhere on high.
Cody moved in close, his voice low enough so the guest dumpers couldn’t hear. "Are you sure about this, Dan?"
"No," I admitted, "Just a gut feeling."
The train rolled out and into what later became known as Night of the Guest Dumper. Adam bared his white legs at Goodenow field while The Bridge inhaled leftover Hooters wings in front of a community sign. Topher reached for his heels on the porch of Fareway Mike's house, Stickly stuck a light bulb in his mouth in front of his dad's electrical business. Trevyn ordered from the McDonald's drive-through, Nick brushed his teeth outside the Dentist's office, and Schepers cheered from the grandstands at the fairgrounds. Suffice it to say, that toilet saw more ass than a Mardi-Gras proctologist that night.
We were finishing up with the final dump of the night when a figure emerged from the darkness. I could make out only the silhouette of some great weapon held steady with both hands.
"Who's there?" I demanded. Was this the unnamed enemy, the supposed culprit here to do us – or the toilet – harm?
The apparition stepped into the light, revealing an easy smile, a crisp polo, and the white and black keys of an electronic piano clutched to his chest. "Ray-The-Charles Dumper," he announced, and donned a pair of shades. “At your service.”
I smiled like the devil at this late arrival. "One more dump, boys!" I shouted.
We drove out to the local KFC, plopped the toilet down in front of the double doors and watched in amazement as Ray-The-Charles worked his magic. He jerked his head left, then right – a stiff, lurching, zombie-like flail – smashing the keys to an invisible tune as if the flash of the camera were his beat, his pulse, his very soul. We applauded and cheered, enchanted by the daring innovation of this new character, his gawkish floundering, and the awkward beauty of his dance. It was glorious, it was perfection, a samba so mesmerizing that I almost missed the red Blazer pulling up behind.
Dubz stepped out, his Timberlands crunching over the asphalt. He sported a puffy black coat, a flat bill cap, and the look of the damned. His minion, Fat Tom, appeared by his side, a bag of David’s sunflower seeds resting loosely in his front pocket.
"Form ranks!" I shouted. To my astonishment, the guest dumpers obeyed, molding into a human wall around the toilet.
Dubz and Tom halted in front of us. Their breath frosted in the chill of the eve; a discarded newspaper rolled by. Had they owned revolvers, they would have fingered them very intently.
"What do you want?" I asked.
Dubz smiled in sinister delight. "We’re here for the toilet,” he purred.
I clenched my fists. "Over my dead body."
His smile vanished like smoke. "So be it." Dubz unsheathed something from behind his back and leveled our way. It was a plunger – a used plunger. I knew it was second-hand because with every swing, water droplets flicked off the rubber, scalding our skin and burning our eyes.
"There's feces in it!" shouted Dempsey, falling to the ground and clawing at his eyes.
Other dumpers moved in. Dubz slashed away, a madman fending off the mob with wild blows and maniacal laughter. “Oh yeah!” he shouted as he swung. “Boom!” The plunger whizzed past, struck forth, and glanced off guest dumpers.
“He’s too powerful!” cried BJ, taking a rubber slap to the back, and collapsing.
But Dubz wasn't pressing towards us, just holding his ground.
That’s when I noticed Fat Tom, worming his way around the dumpers’ flank.
"Protect the toilet!" I screamed. Guest dumpers fell in front, blocking Tom's path like the secret service during an assault on the president. Those that stood their ground were quickly dispatched – blinded by sunflower seeds and spittle. I glanced back at Dubz, just in time to see the arc of the plunger swinging my way. It would have struck me square in the temple had it not been blocked by a wireless keyboard.
"I'll take care of him!" shouted Ray-The-Charles Dumper. "Now save the toilet!"
With no time to think, I dashed towards the stool where Nemmers was struggling to drag it away. I grasped the other end and we scampered towards the Dakota and tossed it in the back. The warzone quickly faded into a blur in my rearview. We sped to my house and stashed the toilet, then raced back to the crime scene. Our friends were dying out there, and with the privy now safe, we alone could help turn the tide.
The Blazer was gone by the time we turned into the KFC parking lot. Guest dumpers lay scattered, moaning softly and nursing their wounds. Amidst the carnage, I spotted Ray-The-Charles. His keyboard lay shattered at his side, a ruin of broken keys and electronics dangling by the wires. Fecal droplets dusted his face, his hands and arms were covered in bruises or poop smudges – which, I couldn't tell.
But he breathed.
Nemmers appeared at my side. "Is he okay?"
I squatted, wiped the excrement from Ray’s forehead. The words that came next were like poison, like vomit, like Dubz himself had plunged them out of my very lungs.
“He'll live," I said. "But he'll never dump again."
Our website came equipped with a pathetic guest book that visitors could sign. Assuming its users to be boomers who built websites for their three distant relatives to peruse, the web builder only allowed a dozen or so comments before it filled up and had to be emptied, which at this point was daily. To better herd this traffic, we upgraded to a message board and each took on an additional alias to post under.
“It wouldn’t look right,” I explained, “If The Toilet Warriors were driving the narratives. Every good band needs a few groupies.”
Nemmers became Jules, the obnoxious thug who typed in all caps. I transformed into Wiligus, the quintessential punk who quoted Hawthorne Heights and equated everything to getting high, while Cody morphed into Harold Pastrami, a sandwich dork who steered every conversation back to his favorite deli meats.
The message board doles were filling, and we drowned the forum with all kinds of asinine commentary. Here’s but a sampling of the threads:
Should the Toilet Warriors take on a sixth man???
Favorite dump ever taken…go!
Next dump ideas?
Who loves PASTRAMI!?!?!?
My Dodge Dakota was jet black with a gray cloth interior, stick shift, and a chrome toolbox pilfered from my Ranger after it was murdered by a blind Asian woman seated behind the wheel of a giant Chevy Tahoe (don’t ask). It was a fabulous little truck, but in the wake of $3.00 per gallon gas and commuting 150 miles a day, I decided to purchase a second vehicle – a 4-cylinder Chevy Cavalier.
The windows were crank and it lacked air conditioning, but it efficiently transported me to and from a nasty grain processing plant – specifically a quaint little hell-hole called ‘the expeller building,’ where they extracted all the undesirables out of the corn before sending it off for refinement. The walls were coated in primordial gunk, liquid dripped and pooled at random, everything (ceiling, floors, conduit) faded to an off-yellow vomit color that sometimes swirled with pukey orange/browns. Above all it was the smell – a horrid, palpable funk that enveloped the room like a smoker’s haze. The stench was so potent that I’d strip down in the parking lot at the end of the day, gargle mouthwash and toss the soiled bundle into the trunk so as not to foul up the interior.
It was upon returning from one of these glorious work days, easing the Cavalier in front of my house and grabbing my lunch box, when I noticed another scrap of paper on my Dodge Dakota. I snatched it from under the windshield wiper and read. Meet me tonight, 6 pm, at the sight of next week’s dump.
A Friend. My mind was racing, trying to puzzle out the identity of this anonymous tipster, and of course, his angle. Was he truly a friend, or up to no good? Was this some clever ploy to get the toilet? And how did he know where our next dump would be?
Because I had worked late, I didn’t have time to call in reinforcements or even mull over the possibilities with them. If I wanted to hear this source out, I had to go, and now.
I hopped in my Dakota and drove down Summit, past the Country Club Golf Course and sheep farm before turning onto Route 64. I idled by Obie’s bar and grill and the entrance to the lock and dam before easing into the Walmart parking lot. Backing into an angled spot, I killed the engine, and waited.
The store was neither busy nor slow in the weeks leading up to the holiday shopping season. The letters on the large marquee glowed big and brilliant, a white beacon for all of Jackson County. Walmart had moved into our hamlet in the early 90’s, killing off much of the downtown. When we were kids, we’d play hide-n-seek in the aisles or race wheelchairs in the lobby. My mom was an endless browser, and the closing fifteen, ten, and five-minute warnings were not unknown to me. We paged my mom a lot, or just asked the clerk to page each other with gag names.
My passenger door opened, and in slipped a lanky figure cloaked in a hoodie. He turned towards me, the dome lights glinting off his thick lenses, illuminating that half-smile that always creased his lips.
“Potter?” I said, bewildered. Potter had never dumped with us, or even shown interest. “You’re the anonymous friend?”
“I come to you at grave danger to myself,” he said. He clicked off the dome light and removed his hoodie. “If they see me here with you…”
I rolled my eyes. “How did you know that this is the site for our dump next week?”
Potter sighed. “I may not have participated, but I’ve applauded from the sidelines. I also hacked into the message board, which is why I know that Dubz and Tom are plotting to take you down.”
"How do they plan on doing that?"
Potter went quiet for a moment, watching a cart boy make his way back to the corral. "They're coming for the toilet,” he finally said.
I snorted. "It's locked away in a secret, secure location, known only to The Toilet Warriors."
“In the shed?” he asked. “They know.”
“How?” I demanded.
Potter glanced out the passenger window, where an overweight family adorned in sloppy haircuts and sweatpants loaded an endless parade of bags into a rusty Explorer. "Perhaps you have a mole?"
My mind raced. The most obvious answer was that one of the guest dumpers had been a plant and somehow overheard the whereabouts of the toilet. But who? They had all acted so valiantly in the previous week’s attack that I couldn't bear to accuse even one of them. Yet that left an even darker alternative.
“Who?” I demanded.
Potter shook his head. “That I don’t know. What I do know is that there are five toilet warriors. Minus you, that leaves four possibilities.”
I felt the cold hand of betrayal cinching around my neck like a noose. Cody was a trusted conspirator, Nemmers and I were thick as thieves, BJ was true of mind and stout of heart, while McCutcheon, though a Bandit in name, lived and breathed for these kinds of gags.
Potter opened a pack of Chicklets and popped a couple in his mouth. “How much longer can you dump, Dan?”
“As long as we have to!” I hissed, my anger betraying my inner motive. “We can lose a warrior. We can relocate the toilet. We can dump forever, man!”
Potter ground the Chicklets under his molars. “Would you listen to yourself? Winter is almost here. The porcelain will freeze to your skin before you can snap a photo, and what then? It's only a matter of time before Dubz strikes again, only next time he'll bring a sledgehammer instead of a plunger, and as you’re struggling to pull your ass off the bowl, he'll be there, smashing that toilet to bits.”
I felt my hands clenching the steering wheel, felt my career calling me out of this small town, felt my youth slipping through my fingers, even now.
Even at 19.
“End it,” said Potter. “Before someone gets hurt.” And with that, he exited the car, as sudden and abrupt as my teen years would depart upon my next birthday, only a few short weeks away.
Despite the two-second flash delay, we snapped a lot of photos. During the week, Cody and I were tasked with the burdensome job of slogging through the rough drafts – cropping, chopping, and adding smiley faces where necessary. When pouring over half-nude photos of your friends, you get to know them in new, weird ways. McCutcheon had a mystery butt crack that only appeared on a full moon, Nemmers’ head cast shadows that looked like penises, while Cody sported incredibly hairy…thighs.
The message board was clowning out of control, bogging down with juvenile rantings and random internet haters. At first, I had thought the notion that Iowa Dumping Grounds could possibly garner an enemy was ludicrous, but after the failed heist of the toilet, I didn’t know what to think. Despite the guest dumpers pledging their fealty and the long history of trust in each Toilet Warrior, I began to suspect everyone.
Then came the public thread – a shot across the bow – posted by a secret alias, DumperThief45:
We’re coming for the toilet, Dan. We’re coming for YOU!
Friday night came upon us. There was no pre-game parking lot pep talk, no guest dumpers, no cameras, not even a toilet. In honor of Ray-The-Charles Dumper, we decided to have a night of silence, and since McCutcheon was down with the sickness, that left only the founding four. We leaned against my truck, watching our breath frost and deciding what to do with our evening.
“Wanna get some cupcakes?” offered Nemmers.
Cody suggested the small town go-to. “We could drive around?”
BJ elaborated. “How about we drive to the Dollar General warehouse parking lot and do tank circles in the round-a-bout?”
“Until the guy in the fork truck runs us off,” I concluded with a laugh. All sounded promising, but before we could conclude, I felt a slight vibration in my pocket, followed by the 15-second techno remix of the Ghost Busters tune. I pulled my phone out. The number was blocked.
“They’re coming for the toilet.” The voice was purposefully distorted, raspy and growled, but held a familiar cantor. His attempt at anonymity might have been successful had it not been for his unmistakable heavy breathing.
“Tom?” I asked.
Fat Tom paused, clearly mulling over his options now that his cover was blown. At last, he announced (as he always did), “I’m comin’ over!”
Tom’s Oldsmobile rumbled down the road a few minutes later. He hopped out and lumbered towards us. “They’re coming this way!” he shouted.
“It’s a ploy,” whispered BJ. “Tom can’t be trusted.”
I narrowed my eyes as Tom halted in front of us. “Why would you help us?”
“Some people don’t need motive,” Tom proudly asserted, a startling premonition years before Heath Ledger’s Joker ever spoke the words, “They just like to watch things burn.” He cackled like a bastard and added, “Plus, Dubz ate my McChicken yesterday.”
“How can we believe you?” questioned Nemmers.
“I can give you the name of the mole,” he said.
“Who?” I demanded.
Cody placed a hand on the Dakota to steady himself. BJ shook his head like a disappointed father.
“McGriddles McCutcheon,” I spat. “The Infamous Bandit of Swagosa Hill strikes again.”
“He lied to you,” said Tom. “He doesn’t have the flu. In fact, him and Dubz are headed here right now!”
Just as Tom finished the sentence, a pair of headlights turned down the lane. Ever so slowly it approached, easing to a stop in front of my neighbor’s yard. The engine died, the headlights winked off, the door opened. The lights had momentarily clouded my vision, so that all I could make out was a shadowy figure moving towards us in the darkness. As he approached, the details slowly came into context. It wasn’t his lanky figure or oversized hoodie, but the glint off his glasses that revealed his identity.
“Potter!” I shouted, clapping him in a bear hug. “It is good to see you!”
Potter offered a half-smile that revealed little, but enough. “I could no longer remain neutral,” he explained. “As long as there’s one good toilet left to dump on in this town, then I’ll stand ready to defend it.”
“Tom just came to warn us,” explained Nemmers. “Dubz and McCutcheon are coming for the toilet, tonight.”
“They know the toilet is stashed in the back shed,” Potter mused. “But they don’t know that we know that they know.” His joker’s smile touched his eyes. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
I nodded, the threads of a hasty plot beginning to take shape. “Where do we hide?”
We hauled my dad’s extension ladder out of the garage, propped it against the house, and climbed. From this vantage, we could see everything, and had a clear shot at the shed.
“Look,” whispered Nemmers, pointing across the cornfield, to the pair of headlights turning down our lane.
We hunkered into prone positions, the shingles hard and unforgiving under our bodies. Within moments, the vehicle appeared near the end of the lane, pulling into an abandoned gravel path. The lights shut off.
“It’s them,” confirmed Nemmers, using his eagle-eye. Dubz and McCutcheon angled into the brush at the base of the cornfield, two black dots moving beneath a half moon. They ducked under scrub trees, Dubz carving a path through the weeds with his plunger, until they finally emerged at the base of my backyard. Like predators on a hunt, they paused, sniffed the breeze for scent and scanned for movement.
McCutcheon crept out of the shadows first, stooping under an arm of branches and disappearing behind the shed before reappearing around the front. Dubz was behind him, sheathing the plunger and placing a hand on the roll-up door. Only by the light of the moon could I make out McCutcheon counting down on his fingers.
The door rolled up, revealing the interior of the shed as it ascended; the grass-stained lawnmower, the rakes against the wall, the white porcelain of the lavatory, and two stout legs planted firmly on each flank. A cache of sunflower seeds spilled upon the floor was the only harbinger.
“For the toilet!” shouted Tom, launching off the privy and spear-tackling Dubz to the ground, his knee somehow finding accidental purchase in the commotion.
“Oh, my nuts!” cried Dubz, grabbing at his package and momentarily blacking out. When he came to, he was staring down the barrel of his own plunger. He glanced left, at the fleeing figure of his accomplice, The Infamous Bandit of Swagosa Hill, escaping into the cornfield. With his allies having either betrayed or deserted him, and his weapon now in the hands of the enemy, Dubz knew the situation was dire.
“What are you gonna do, Dan?” he rumbled, never losing composure. “Go plunging?”
As I stood there, the plunger leveled at Dubz, a vision passed before my eyes. It was a moment of prescience, where you see your whole world, alpha and omega, smashed together in one cosmic dance. The years of jokes, gags and goofs – toilet paper and window chalk, midnight fast food runs and giant genitalia constructed of snow - all washed away by a tide of the inevitable; lunch boxes and overtime, 401k’s and house payments, calluses and wrinkles and a body in decline. It was a melancholy image, bitter in its honesty, Judas in its kiss.
I dropped the plunger at Dubz’s feet.
“What are you doing!?” cried BJ, verbalizing everyone’s thoughts.
“Go on,” I said to Dubz, my voice but a breath.
Dubz rose to his feet, eyeing me cautiously as if I would rescind my offer at any moment, then returned whence he came, the plunger still lying in the grass.
"Why'd you let him go?” squawked Tom. “What if he comes back next week?"
"There won't be a next week," I said. I realized now that the toilet was not the means to an end, but simply the culmination of my youth. You can only hold on to something for so long before it becomes a burden, before you yourself fade to Atlas.
"The Toilet Warriors are divided,” acknowledged Cody. “And winter is upon us.”
“Plus the $17 website fee is due,” added Nemmers. “Who has that kinda cash lying around?”
“If not Dubz, then another man,” I lamented. “Rising up in his ashes and trying to claim the toilet for himself.”
BJ spoke next, his words a sad, reverent awakening. "We can't dump in these conditions.”
I felt the heaviness of the tears as they formed in the back of my eyes. "In a few months, I'll be moving, and we'll forever leave this behind us.” I glanced up, into the sky, into the half-moon. “Why linger on until then?”
It was Potter who spoke next, placing his hand upon my shoulder and shining a ray of light. “Then why not go out in a blaze of glory?"
I drew my gaze from the cosmos, to my dear friend. "What are you proposing?" I asked.
Potter smiled. "One last dump."
At the time, loss was something I had little experience with. My world was changing – I felt it in my bones – but had not the vocabulary to express the sadness of this impending train. We plan, we prepare, we look ahead as far as our narrow vision can cast, but what do we ever really see?
I never took my youth lightly. I like to think I made the most of it, that I squeezed every last drop out until there was nothing left but a dull, tattered rind.
Without funding, the website shut down of its own accord, but the message board was a free service. And it’s still out there, somewhere. Perhaps you can find it.
If you try.
The toilet was standard, factory white porcelain. Although the seat and cover were missing, the silver lever remained intact, along with a steel-braided hose dangling from the tank like the tentacle of a metallic squid. Rust stains bled from the screws, and the interior was warped and stained from years of hard use, a juvenile juxtaposition against the glossy exterior reflecting the amber hue of the light pole as the toilet - slightly askew - nestled comfortably in the bed of my truck.
Horseshoe Pond – once a grungy little basin known more for its pint-sized fish than its evening debauchery (drug deals, rocking vans, wandering drunks) – had undergone a facelift in recent years. A shallow creek where I once caught frogs and turtles flanked its perimeter, while a path had been mowed through the upper treeline years ago – the perfect sledding hill, so long as the water had frozen solid. A series of young willows were planted, paralleling old Route 61, where people would back their campers up to in the summer, tossing footballs and frisbees around company and campfire. With such pedestrians come the amenities – in particular, a small, wooden shack with two doors, two signs, and two commodes.
“Here?” squawked Tom. “This is the dirtiest, sluttiest bathroom in town!”
“And the best place to catch an STD,” remarked BJ, pointing a pair of sarcastic finger guns our way.
The plan was for the wildest shot ever taken, a quadruple stack. By adding our toilet to the natives, we could get the pic so long as both doors were held open.
“Uh, Dan,” said Nemmers, pushing open the men’s door. He sniffed the air and frowned. “We have a problem.” I pushed past him and saw the trouble with my own eyes. Our plan, of course, assumed there was a toilet and a latrine in the men’s bathroom.
Potter poked his head in next, examined the situation. “You’ll have to pull off a double-decker dump.” He chuckled at this unserious prospect. “Who wants bottom?”
Some laughed, others gagged, but nobody volunteered.
“Forget the Founding Four Quadruple Crap,” I said. “What about a tandem tinkle?”
Potter nodded at this. "But which two?" he asked.
"Well, I've got the camera," said BJ.
"Nemmers?” I asked. “Cody?"
Nemmers waved us off. "You two go ahead," he said. "I like to watch."
Cody smiled warmly. “God bless you,” he said, and mussed Nemmers’ hair.
Tom and Potter took the honor of hauling the toilet out of the truck and cramming it into the little outhouse. Cody and I filed in after.
“Look away now,” I instructed, and slipped off my khakis. The porcelain was frigid; a cold slap on the bottom sending tendrils up my spine. Cody unzipped and moved into position adjacent to me, however, after all that talk about STD’s, he refused to touch bottom. Instead, he grabbed onto the handlebars behind the toilet and hovered over the stainless steel can.
“Say diarrhea,” said BJ, pressing his body against the back wall to get the perfect angle. I gripped the porcelain and clenched my jaw. Cody trembled and quaked like a cowboy on a wild bull. The flash lit up the darkness, emblazoning our images in digital memory, cementing our names in the halls of history. BJ giggled, then turned the camera and showcased the final product. Chortles turned to laughs, to chuckles and guffaws and rolling clouds of thunder. It was a mirth and levity witnessed by few – powerful in its density, beautiful in its honesty. It is the pure joy of teenage innocence and the anthem of our youth.
Yet as marvelous and rare as these moments in life are, they too, shall come to pass.
The laughter slowly faded, like the momentary jocularity at a funeral upon a burst of fine memory. We wiped the tears from our eyes and steadied our breathing. The silence lingered as we loaded the toilet into the truck, as we drove down old Highway 61 that vanishes into Main Street. Even as we turned into the Fareway parking lot, we were quiet.
I backed up to the dumpster. Cody, Nemmers and I jumped into the bed of the truck while the others watched from below. Carefully, we lifted the toilet and placed it on the edge of the dumpster. Cody and Nemmers backed away, leaving me to balance the precarious old throne with one paw.
I had imagined draping a flag over our porcelain friend, speaking a few words as we all tipped our Mountain Dews in honor, but things don’t always work out the way you envision. The internet was expanding, social media was taking its first awkward steps, while sites like Ebaum’s World were gathering the masses. We stood upon the threshold of YouTube fame before YouTube was a thing. The world was changing, and indeed I saw it in the stars, felt it in my bones like an old man sensing the approach of winter. I alone had the ability to carve out an existence in this universe, for myself and for us. Iowa Dumping Grounds was a grand experiment filled with jokes and laughs and the fountain of youth. Behind its juvenile photos and wacky content, I foresaw fame and fortune, everything you wanted, everything you ever dreamed of. Yours for the taking if you just pressed forward.
I let go.
The toilet wobbled for a breath before sliding into the dumpster, disappearing into a coffin of cardboard and saran wrap. There was no three-volley salute, no Taps, no tears. Only a profound moment of silence. I wondered if our children, or our children’s children, would one day return with their own toilet in tow, poking around this old place - teenage paleontologists digging up ancient laughs - and pick up where we left off. Would they, like their fathers, find humor in all the wrong places? Would they build something from nothing? Would they bond over the stupidest things, forging friendships that would last a lifetime?
Or would they simply grow up to be better men than us?
The run of The Toilet Warriors was hot and fast – not unlike the throes of diarrhea of which we had earlier pretended - and although it ended here, tonight, where it all began, I knew it would live on forever in the wellsprings of our memory, and in the depths our souls.
I hopped off the truck and back to solid ground, inhaling the night air. The stars were alive, and my breath was beginning to frost. “Come on,” I said to the guys, tracing my callused fingers along the body of my Dakota, already feeling the absence of the old season, and a new one on the horizon.
“It’s time to go home.”
About the author:
Danny Hankner began penning stories about himself and his idiot friends as a teenager. Now, masquerading as an adult, he lives in Davenport, Iowa with his wife and three children, working as a master electrician for his own company. In his spare time, Dan rides and builds mountain bike trails, scrapes infinitely spawning cat hurl off the basement floor, and runs Story Unlikely, an award-winning literary magazine where he floats around self-important titles like 'Editor-in-chief'. His work has besmirched the good reputations of Downstate Story, SQ Mag, Tenth Muse, and many more unfortunate publishers, as well as being awarded semi-finalist in Writers of the Future.
A special note from the author:
If it wasn't for the photographic evidence, who would believe that this story actually happened? But it did (with, of course, minor embellishment). Iowa Dumping Grounds truly was the anthem of youth, and I'd like to thank all the people - friends, Toilet Warriors, Guest Dumpers and pretend villains - for being a part. You guys not only made this story what it is, but my teenage years as well. You're the reason why I look back with such fondness, and why I continue putting these stories to paper. And if these stories live on in our hearts, then perhaps we'll never grow old.
MY NAME IS ANGELA
Originally published in Writers of the Future(Intriguing / Layered / Resonating)SCI FI
Where I'm From
If I sit still for a long time and think in just the right way, I can see the numbers and colored letters hiding behind my name. The grandfathers are sure we can’t do this but we can. Sometimes late at night, when I might really be asleep, I think of a ride in a truck. It’s sunny and there are rows of us, all wearing the same white gowns, and I hear the little whirly noise of a gate sliding into place behind us…I don’t think of the truck when I’m in school teaching their fourth graders. Or the numbers. I follow the well-worn groove of times tables and spelling, now and then reading stories or listening to oral reports. Last week there were two knife fights, but that too is a well-worn groove. I stopped them both and got yelled at by some of the mothers and their boyfriends. They saw the blood soaking through the bandage on my arm, but it made no difference. They are just like their children; if they weren’t different sizes, I could never tell them apart.Bruno says he can tell them apart but he lies about so many things I never know what to believe. His lying makes me tired so I don’t talk to him much. I have my radio and he has his TV. His shows are stupid and so is he. When I’m in the living room with him, he pretends to know who the people are and what they’re doing but late at night, before he comes to bed, I peek and see him shaking his head, mumbling as he clicks from channel to channel.A good thing about Bruno is that I never have to look up to him and he never has to look down at me. People look down at us all the time, without exception. It’s what we’re for. Of course, I hear pieces of discussions on the radio, usually when the music is boring and I turn the dial. Some are “for” us and some “against,” but I can’t tell their ideas apart any more than I can tell them apart. They’re like empty spaces, white silhouettes moving through the dimly colored background of the world, or fiery beings stretching blazing hands to conduct us like a lackluster symphony written by a mediocre composer. It’s because of the numbers behind my name. I think they control me, and the ones for recognizing people are missing.The grandfathers are sure we don’t understand about the numbers, but we do. When I go to the regional office for routine check-ups, they always test to see if I know about the numbers, but they’re so sure I don’t, they never pay attention. The grandfathers are different from other people, more defined and identifiable. I trust them, but I don’t know why. Maybe some of the numbers make me trust them.One Saturday morning it was raining when I woke up. Bruno was snoring as usual and the side of his face was covered with a big bandage. I was confused but then I remembered. Last night he wanted sex. I told him no. This was odd because I really did feel like that, but I didn’t like him deciding all the time. I thought it should be my turn to decide and I decided no.He didn’t like that. He followed me around, getting in the way while I did the dishes and the ironing. Sometimes he was loud and scary; mostly he was whiny and pitiful. He was really on my nerves!Finally, I made another decision. I told him, “No!” one last time and hit him with the hot iron as hard as I could. He crashed to the floor and didn’t move.I got ready for bed as he lay there moaning. When I got out of the shower, he was sitting up, whimpering and trying not to touch his swollen face. His left eye had disappeared.A few minutes later, he staggered to his feet. He went to the clinic and I went to sleep.I remembered all that as I sat listening to the rain and smelling the fresh air seeping into the drafty old apartment. It was such a peaceful feeling, like the rain was making its own clean, cool world just for me. In a way it was like the quiet truck ride in my dream, with no numbers, no knife fights, nobody “for” and “against.”It was like music that had to come from some place greater than the messy, tangled world. Could there be such a place?I think that’s when I decided to go to the Soul Man.
Only a Little Soul
Everybody knows about the Soul Man, just like everybody knows about things like drugs and where to buy stolen goods. The difference is that decent people don’t buy drugs or stolen goods, but any of us can go to the Soul Man if we have money and aren’t afraid of the law. Some go because they want the rest of us to look up to them the way all the made people have to look up to the born people. I never cared about that. In fact, I almost didn’t go because I didn’t want to look down on Bruno or make him look up to me. But every time I almost changed my mind, I would remember the cool, clean rain and the sunny truck ride through the gate. Even though nobody in the truck said a word, I knew we all had the same new, happy feeling, like a place had been made just for us and we were on our way to fit into that place and do things that only we could do.Of course, I only know that as a dream. I don’t really remember, do I? My earliest memory is the grandfather at the regional office saying, “Open your eyes.” Nobody else was with me. There was no sun and no white robe, just my first set of drab clothes draped across a chair, waiting for me to put them on. They smelled like mothballs. I knew they’d been worn before.What the Soul Man did was against the law, so he had to move around to stay ahead of the police. The hardest part about finding him was asking people. We are not outgoing; other than Bruno and one or two of the custodians at school, I really didn’t know anybody to ask. Sometimes I saw people on the el or walking down the street and I could tell by looking at their eyes that they had changed, but you can’t just stop a stranger and ask! You can’t just say, “Where is the illegal Soul Man?” It was discouraging.I began to feel lonely because when you need to know something important and have no one to ask, you really are alone. I couldn’t talk to Bruno, because I didn’t want him to know. My plan was to try it and if it turned out to be good maybe I could get him to try it too. In the meantime, I knew I couldn’t trust him. He might pretend to know where the Soul Man was and then laugh at me if I went where he said and found nothing.I was thinking hard about this problem one afternoon. I had just finished reading A Wrinkle in Time to my kids and was waiting for them to get out their math homework when one of them came up to my desk.“It’s Jamal, Miss Angela.”I think Jamal was in one of the knife fights, but it wasn’t his fault. I would have recognized him if not for my preoccupation. He always gave me a hug at the end of the day.“Yes, Jamal? Would you like to use the bathroom?”
“No ma’am. Mr. Sam asked me to give you this.” He handed me a note. It said, “I know a Man.”
“Thank you, Jamal.”
“Are you okay, Miss Angela?”
“Yes, I am, Jamal. Thank you for asking.”When school was over for the day, I went down the gray painted steps at the end of the hall and through the doors with the Fallout Shelter sign. Before Sam started working at the school, the steps were greasy and the paint was almost all peeled off. The hand rail was rusty, but now it was a nice glossy green. Everything Sam did was neat and clean. That’s why he was such a good custodian.The door to the janitor’s room was open and I could see the clean white mops hanging on the wall. There was a smell of orange cleaner but not too much. The janitor’s room at our apartment usually had a nasty sour smell with strong pine cleaner fighting to cover it up.Sam was at a work bench fixing a vacuum cleaner. A bright white light shone on tools laid in neat rows; pieces of the sweeper were arranged on a sheet of newspaper.Sam was my age, of course but he wore glasses and looked like an older person. “We’re all suitable to our calling,” I thought, remembering the line from A Christmas Carol, “we’re well matched…”“You can tell when somebody has been to the Soul Man,” he said without looking up from his work, “but I can tell when somebody wants to go.” He put down the glasses he didn’t need (none of us do) and turned to look at me with unremarkable brown eyes. “We’re different for a reason, Angela. Don’t go to the Soul Man.”“I want to,” was all I could think to say.“Then I’ll tell you a secret,” he said with an odd sort of smile. “You already have the thing you want from him. It’s a trick; all he’ll do is switch around some of your numbers. This will change the way you feel and the way you think, but it won’t change what you are. We’re already the same thing they are, the way a draft horse is the same thing as a wild stallion.”“I’m tired of watching stallions.”“So was I,” he said, “but I couldn’t be one, no matter how much I thought I could.”“You went to the Soul Man? But…”“I went all right. It was a mistake. For a long time I didn’t know what to do; the Soul Man never undoes his work. I finally went to the grandfather to get changed back. I was afraid I would get into trouble…” He stopped smiling.“I still want to go,” I said.“All right.” He handed me a slip of paper. “Show this at the door. If anybody but the person at the door sees it, tell them it’s your grocery list. I can’t write down his location, but he’ll be there until Thursday. Go to Thirtieth Street Station and take the R7…”That night I was very nice to Bruno because I had a strange feeling that I would be leaving him the next day. I didn’t know what it would be like after I went to the Soul Man but I knew it would be different. Maybe a different person couldn’t stay with Bruno. Maybe a different person could stay but not be happy.Maybe Bruno wouldn’t like a different person.I made a pot of oatmeal because he thinks it’s a treat to have breakfast for dinner and oatmeal is his favorite. Lately he’s been acting careful around me, like he’s afraid to do something I might not like. He picks up after himself and doesn’t pretend to know all about the people on TV. This makes things more convenient. I should like it this way, but I don’t. I just wanted things to be the way they were before they changed again, maybe forever.When we got into bed, he said it had been a long day. I know he works hard on the docks and they’d been making him work overtime; he was falling asleep at dinner but I also had the strangest thought. I could stop an irresistible force but I could not move an immovable object. I didn’t know what this thought could really mean, but as he lay there snoring, I touched the scar on his cheek and wondered; could Bruno ever be a wild stallion?
What Could Be in That House?
It was a blustery wet Saturday when I found the Soul Man’s house. I assumed it would be in some dangerous, rundown neighborhood like in a crime show, but it wasn’t. It was a nice old place in a row of old houses on a little hill. The slate walk was lined with hyacinths and crocuses and there was a big dogwood tree waiting to flower.I thought Sam had made a mistake when a nice old lady answered the door, but she took my “grocery list” and showed me to a little room that smelled like flowers and old books. All the windows were stained glass and the walls were covered with all kinds of symbols. I recognized the cross, the six pointed star and the yin/yang but most of the symbols were strange. There was a kind of relaxing music playing softly; it sounded a little like wind and birds and a tumbling brook.I don’t know what I expected, but when a sharply dressed young man came into the room, I had no idea he was the Soul Man. He reminded me of a grandfather; I trusted him immediately. I noticed he was handsome and this made me feel strange.“Don’t get up,” he said as I started to rise. He sat on a delicate looking chair in front of me and stared at my face.“They say the eyes are the window to the soul,” he said. He was quiet as he looked into my eyes, then he held out his hand and said, “Angela, my name is David. Pleased to meet you.”I shook his hand.“What makes you think you want a soul?”“I… I’m not sure,” I said. We don’t always think of reasons for what we want, especially the things we want most. “I think it started with a dream I keep having.” I explained about the truck and the rain. I was sure this was nonsense to him and I began to wonder if I belonged there at all, but he just smiled and nodded as if he heard the story every day.“What does Bruno think?” he asked.“How do you know about Bruno?”“Remember what I told you about eyes,” he said. “Bruno doesn’t know, does he? You don’t plan to tell him.”I shook my head.“Good. I don’t like doing this for people who just want to be looked up to. Those people don’t understand what they’re getting into.”“Sam told me I shouldn’t come,” I said.“Sam? Oh yes, the custodian. Sam is a good friend. Now, there are a few things you should know before we begin. First of all, this is against the law. We can stop now if you like and you won’t get into trouble.”“I don’t want to stop.”“All right. Now this is important. You see the symbols all around us? Those symbols remind us that only God makes souls. Some argue that it doesn’t matter if you’re born or made; all people have souls regardless. Others say that men make bodies, but men can’t make souls so ‘made’ people are soulless. I don’t know which thing is true. All I know is that at the end of the ritual you will know you have a soul. That means you will be responsible for your life, your thoughts and your actions and you will be accountable to God. Do you understand?”“As much as I’m able to,” I said.
“It’s a big step, Angela. The biggest. This is your last chance. Are you sure?”
“Okay. Sit back and relax. Close your eyes…”
I knew I was crying before I woke up.“… the matter? Angela, wake up. Open your eyes.” I opened my eyes.“What’s the matter?” he asked. I think he was trying to look into my eyes again, but couldn’t see because of the tears. He looked really concerned; maybe this wasn’t what usually happened.“It’s Bruno,” I sniffed. My heart was pounding. I felt like some kind of power was flowing through me, almost like electricity. “How could I do that? What kind of person does what I did to him?”The Soul Man seemed to relax a little. “You feel ashamed of something you did to Bruno?”“Is that what this is? It feels terrible, like I have to straighten something I bent, only I don’t know how.”“Well,” he sighed, “that’s what it’s like to have a soul. You may not understand it now, Angela, but you’re having a very healthy reaction.”“But what do I do?” I said. “How do I fix what I did?”“If you really want to fix it, you’ll find a way.”So many things were happening in my mind as I gave my money to the old lady and left the house. There was a storm outside. Before, my only thought would’ve been how to stay dry, but now I noticed that the lightning was beautiful and terrifying. I couldn’t take my eyes from the clouds as they were stretched and shredded by the wind and every little piece of the sky was like some bottomless kaleidoscope of gray and silver. There was a connection between the wonderful freshness of the air, the watery purity of the clouds and the sharp edges of the lightning and thunder. Then there were the trees sweeping back and forth, some still struggling to push sleepy leaves from their tightly wound buds so they could connect with the air waiting to flow in as carbon dioxide, energize the tree and flow out again as oxygen to energize animals and people…All the data that had been put in my head by the grandfathers was waking up like the leaves, not just lying in storage waiting to be used for a moment and then put away again. I felt like a dazzling swarm of bees searching for a queen to bring them to order. I felt like clouds with eyes and ears and noses, blowing swiftly and surely in a direction I couldn’t recognize. I felt like the wet earth and the yellow sun in the dry blue sky above the rain…I felt alive.“I was right!” I said this to myself over and over as I watched the dripping city rush past the grimy train window. There really was a place greater than the messy, tangled world. I was right!As the train sped around a bend deeper into the city, a great big church with a golden dome came into view. I stopped thinking about being right and wondered about a Person who could exist outside of all we could see or know.Bruno was watching wrestling when I got home. Right away, I noticed that he was built like one of the wrestlers, broad, sharply defined and full of strength. Of course, I’ve always noticed, ever since that day at the regional office when we sat across from each other in the waiting room, but this was different. There was something admirable about this big strong man, something that made my heart beat a little faster just because I was near him.I sat on the sofa and snuggled against him, pulling his arm across my shoulders. I was still a little chilly from my walk in the rain.“Hi, Angela. I’m watching wrestling. See that guy in the blue trunks? They call him The Butcher… I mean the one in the red cape… He fought the Jade Blaster. I mean the one in the blue trunks; he’s the one… definitely the Jade Blaster… Oh, forget it! I know you don’t like wrestling!”“Who says? Maybe I’m starting to get interested.”He looked at me like a puppy that’d just been scratched behind the ears. I know that sounds like I’m talking down about him, but I’m really not. I put my arms around him and squeezed. “Who’s that?” I asked, pointing to a masked man at ringside getting ready to throw a chair.“That’s, um, Slappy Joe. Yeah. He fought the Jade Blaster. You see that guy in the red cape…?”When I woke up crying at the Soul Man’s house, it was the worst I’ve ever felt, but that rainy afternoon with Bruno was the happiest I’ve ever felt.
The next morning, I woke up thinking about church. I’d dreamed about the truck again, only it was mixed up with the big church from the train ride. Instead of bringing us out into the world, the truck was taking us all to the mysterious place under the shining golden dome. Bruno was there with friends and flowers. There was a man in white and gold standing at the altar holding a book and everybody knew him and trusted him the way we do the grandfathers.I don’t know anything about going to church so I put one of the religious programs on the radio while I made breakfast. I couldn’t understand everything that was said, but I didn’t put it on to get sense out of it. The music made the morning feel quiet and special and I imagined that the preacher looked just like the man from my dream, dressed in white and gold.Bruno always worked on Sunday. When he kissed me on his way out I got happy all over again. I felt like I was standing in a clear stream on a beautiful sunny day, with my toes squishing in the cool mud. The sparkling water rose, lifting me and carrying me under shady trees and I closed my eyes as my hair spread around me like jeweled black ferns waving in the watery breeze.Sunday was my day to mark homework and tests. Math was easy; I’m good at math and all the problems are solved in the teacher’s guide, but this week I also had book reports. The rules were simple and I knew every word of every book but each child explained things differently. I had to use all my concentration and compare each section of the student’s report with some piece of the book that seemed to match it. This was one of the reasons why I could never teach higher than fourth grade; the older the students the more individualized they became. By the time they reached sixth grade they had to be taught by the “regulars.”I was reading Ashley’s report about Call It Courage, an older book about a brave and resourceful young Polynesian boy. My mind started drifting. I wondered if I could build a dugout canoe and what breadfruit tasted like. The radio was still on in the kitchen, but the religious program was over. Now there were people talking. It was another “for” and “against” discussion only this time it caught my attention.“… spokesman for Ultimate Aim Inc., the company producing the clones and Winston Mothersbaugh from the Coalition for Human Dignity. Let’s start with you, Dr. Monroe. Where do things stand now with Ultimate Aim’s test program?”“We’re in the third phase of our social integration pilot program,” said a man. I could not imagine a face for him. “A substantial population of our people have been introduced into three east coast urban environments, where they are going about the business they’re made for. They’re under close supervision.”“How are they doing?”“Splendidly,” said the man. “They’re doing their jobs flawlessly and our evaluations show they are well adjusted and satisfied.”“Is that why half of the Philly P.D. is out hunting for the Soul Man,” asked Mr. Mothersbaugh, “because they’re well adjusted and satisfied?”“What about the Soul Man phenomenon?” asked the woman. I could tell she wanted to sound like she was curious about the Soul Man but she really wanted to talk about something else. “Does Ultimate Aim have any comment?”“This person, if he even exists, is really not our concern,” said Dr. Monroe. “Of course, if an arrest is made, we will prosecute vigorously. Our people are the property of Ultimate Aim and must not be tampered with.”“Voids the warranty, I guess,” said Mr. Mothersbaugh. “Do you even hear yourself, Doctor?”I turned it off.I finished marking the papers. I cleaned the apartment. When there was nothing left to do inside, I went for a walk.The list of things I noticed for the first time could fill a book so I won’t list them. Every piece of the world seemed new, like I’d been living in the twilight of an overcast winter day and now the sun was out, but it was like a million suns. It was getting exhausting. I was already beginning to understand a character like Ebenezer Scrooge and his compulsion to insulate himself from all the good things of life.Scrooge reminded me of books. There was an old bookstore a few blocks from the apartment. I’d never been there. If I needed to know a book, I just went to the library and memorized it, but my head was starting to hurt and I imagined the bookstore would be quiet and still.Did you ever see a scary old movie? I watched one with Bruno once, a long time ago. Some people went to an old house, kind of like the house where I met the Soul Man. It was a fine old house, nice and clean, with lots of architectural detail but it gave everybody a scary, lonely feeling. The bookstore reminded me of that creepy old imaginary house. It made me feel the way the people in the movie must’ve felt. People in the little aisles drifted away from me like sleepy ghosts. Some looked at me like I came from someplace scary.“Can I help you?”
“Oh, I’m looking for…”
“Not you.” A man with white whiskers pushed past me to help a young man at the end of the aisle.Eventually I found my way to the religious section. I giggled to myself as I imagined finding a book called Care and Feeding of Your Soul. There were lots of books to choose from, many bearing the same symbols I’d seen at the Soul Man’s house. I would read all of them, but I decided to start with the Bible because of the church that had joined my dreams.“Must be a gift,” mumbled the man at the cash register as I handed him the Bible. People in line behind me stood back to wait till I was finished. This wasn’t unusual, but today it gave me a hard, icy feeling. I was glad to get away from those people.As I walked back to the apartment, I thought about that feeling. The bookstore was the first time I’d noticed, but not the first time I’d felt that way. When Dr. Monroe said we were the property of Ultimate Aim, I had the same feeling, only it was covered up somehow. Maybe I’d had it even before I went to the Soul Man. I couldn’t be sure.I thought that having a soul would add things to my life. Instead, it was starting to take things away, like insulation being stripped from an electrical wire. I was becoming sensitive to everything, good and bad, and it was strange how even good things could be too much to take.I decided to spend the rest of the day in the apartment with the shades drawn. Maybe I would memorize the Bible.
Getting to school was hard. It was a lovely Monday morning with birds and sunshine and flowers. People might not expect those things in a neighborhood like this, but they’re really not hard to find. The ugliness of trash and disintegrating buildings is the easiest thing to see, but some people try to brighten things up with great big colorful words painted on the buildings. I know it’s illegal and usually has to do with gangs, but it’s nicer than filthy old bricks and concrete.Getting to school was hard because I couldn’t stop noticing everything around me, especially people. For the first time I noticed what a problem the bus can be. Nobody will sit near us and everybody gets mad about the wasted seats. Before, I only thought about getting places; now I was starting to realize what it felt like to be stared at and complained about, as if…Something told me not to think about “as if.” I stopped looking at angry people and reviewed the day’s lesson plan.My kids were unruly when they entered the classroom. Was this unusual, or had I simply not noticed before? “Jerry, put that down,” I called. “Give Claudette her book back.” Jerry ignored me at first but suddenly his eyes got big and round. So did Claudette’s. So did everybody’s, except Jamal’s. He just smiled and took his seat.“That’s right!” I said, trying to sound mischievous instead of scary. I was a little scared myself. “I know who you are.”
They all got quiet and still.
“Raise your hand, Joseph. Yes?”
“Are you a monster?”
Some of the kids looked nervous, as if Joseph had spoken the unspeakable. “Do you think I’m a monster?” I asked.
“My dad says you’re like a… a Frankenstein,” said Joseph.“No, Joseph,” I said. Joseph had started one of the knife fights. “I’m not a monster. But what if I was? Monsters need friends too, don’t they? Wouldn’t you like to have a monster for a friend?”This little challenge worked better than I had anticipated. Within seconds, they were all stomping around the classroom, roaring at each other with their hands up in the air. I let it go on for a few minutes, then got them settled down. There was no more mention of monsters.By recess, I was completely exhausted. What had once seemed like a simple routine now showed itself to be unfathomably complex and emotionally draining. Most of my kids lived in situations which all but guaranteed failure in life and I could feel their needs like powerful vacuums pulling me in twenty-five directions. They were sad and tired and angry and confused. Some struggled to do well but couldn’t; others possessed capabilities well beyond their grade level but refused to use them. I was able to fall back on training and habits to keep the class on an even keel, but I knew this wasn’t teaching.While the kids were out on the playground, I decided to take a risk. It was stupid and now I know I shouldn’t have done it, but I was still learning.I went to the classroom next to mine, where a lady with white hair sat marking papers.“Mrs. Wilson? Excuse me, do you have a minute?”
Mrs. Wilson looked up from her work. “What? Oh… you have your own supplies!”
“I don’t want supplies. I’d just like to talk for a minute, if it’s all right.”
She made a kind of snorting sound. “Talk about what?” she said.
“About teaching. That is… how did you learn to be such a good teacher?”
“Helps if you’re a human. Why do you ask?”
“Well,” I said, trying to take time to think so I wouldn’t make some serious mistake. “I’d like to be a better teacher.”“What for?” she said. “You’re not here to teach. You’re here to keep the damn troublemakers away from kids who might be able to learn a few things. Just because they made you able to memorize books and loaded a few lesson plans into your brain, that doesn’t make you a teacher. Now I have work to do.”My good friend Jamal was the first to return from the playground. I was sitting at my desk.“What’s the matter, Miss Angela?” he asked, giving me his biggest hug. “Don’t cry…”I saw Sam as I was leaving that day, but he was too far away to speak to. I wondered if people ever told him he was worse than useless. I wondered if he ever felt the way I did.Just as the bus pulled up, Claudette came skipping past the bus stop. Everybody was playing the little game they always played, trying to shove ahead of me without getting too close. “As if” was very big and strong, but when Claudette saw me, she raised her hands like monster claws and roared. “As if” slithered back into its hole and I laughed all the way home.That first day at school taught me a lot about what it means to have a soul. When Mrs. Wilson told me the truth about myself, I was so humiliated I wanted to die, but I knew that, if she was right, then I was the only one who cared about my kids. I had to become a good teacher. Bruno would have to help me.
The Language of Monsters
“Let’s try it again. Bonjour, Monsieur.”
“Tu t’appelles comment?”
“Je m’appelle Bruno. Et tu?”
“Je m’appelle Angela. Tu aimes les… les hamburgers?”
“Oui, Madamoiselle. J’aime les hamburgers. Et tu?”
“You know I don’t like hamburgers,” I said. “I mean, um… *Je n’aime… les…”
“Je n’aime pas les hamburgers,” *said Bruno. “I thought you were supposed to be the teacher.”“Maybe I should unload ships and you should teach my class,” I said. Actually, the grandfathers had made all their teachers fluent in several European languages, but I had never tried to teach anything not covered by my strictly defined lesson plans. Bruno was my test case; if I could teach him something he was never meant to learn, it might mean that Mrs. Wilson was wrong.“Can we stop now?” asked Bruno. “I’m hungry and it’s almost time for How Many Can You Break?
“Guess I shouldn’t have asked about hamburgers,” I said. I started for the kitchen to make dinner, but stopped.
“Yeah?” He was already vanishing into the waves of channels flying across the screen, stopping to check one out, going forward, backing up. It reminded me of the way a cat walks around and around before settling down to purr and sleep.
“Thanks for helping me.”
“Sure.”It had been two weeks since my visit to the Soul Man. As time went by, I had less and less awareness of before and after. It just seemed like a smooth, slow transition, like growing up must be. An unexpected thing was that Bruno was “growing up” too; not as much and not as fast but it made me wonder if Sam was right about us being the same thing as they. Could Bruno “catch” a soul from me? If we already have souls could mine wake his up?Of course, we weren’t always happy but even being mad was different. There was always more to a fight than the immediate irritation. I didn’t just want him to stop doing this or saying that. I wanted us to find out what was right. I wanted us to agree, even if it meant one of us had to admit being wrong…I never stopped thinking about the night I hit him.
“Bonjour mes petites monstres.”“Bonjour Mademoiselle Angela!”My “little monsters” were learning French almost as quickly as Bruno. A lot of them resisted at first but once they saw how it could set them apart from their schoolmates, they really applied themselves. I think they were hungry for some identity other than “troublemakers.” My approach was simple. Once a phrase or vocabulary word had been learned, it no longer existed in English. Sometimes we even made a fun little ceremony of destroying the English words. More and more conversations were being conducted in French. They wouldn’t attain anything like fluency since there was so little time left in the school year, but they could be heard speaking their adopted language and singing “Sur le pont D’Avignon” in the hallways. It was a beautiful sound.When I evaluated my lesson plans in the light of Mrs. Wilson’s explanation, I found plenty of space for French lessons. The curriculum I had been given was clearly meant to keep the kids busy without teaching them much of anything. It could only frustrate them and reinforce whatever indifference or resentment they were finding at home or in the community. In my brief career, I have found that children are bright. It is up to those charged with their care to polish them to the full brightness of their potential, but too often, they are dulled by carelessness, laziness and cynical manipulation. It is the education that fails, not the student.I knew these things in a vague way even before my visit to the Soul Man, but now I was motivated to do my part as a teacher. My summer would be spent developing a new curriculum just for my kids. Maybe I could improve things little by little until one day, possibly by the end of next year, my kids could do as well as everyone else’s.Of course, we had no French textbook. I typed each lesson and made copies. I was a little concerned about the reception such a shoestring approach would receive, but my students decided we should take all those lessons and create our own textbook. Claudette even drew a picture of the Eiffel Tower and a loaf of French bread to use for the cover.“Il est temps pour le Français,” I announced as I passed out the day’s lesson. “Today we will learn how…”“Miss Angela,” crackled the loudspeaker, “please report to Dr. Bauer’s office. Will Miss Angela please report to Dr. Bauer’s office?”Dr. Bauer was our principal.“Did you do something bad, Miss Angela?” asked Joseph.“Not that I know of,” I said. “Maybe a parent wants to speak to me. Listen mes petites monstres, I’m counting on you to behave yourselves, comprenez-vous?”“Oui, Mademoiselle! Oui, oui!”Mrs. Wilson was standing at her door as I left the classroom. Usually, she never even looked at me but today she watched me all the way down the hall.There were no parents waiting outside the principal’s office. Inside were Dr. Bauer and a technician from Ultimate Aim.“So,” said Dr. Bauer. She was a shapeless gray woman who always dressed like one of the curvy young professionals on stylish TV shows. She did not invite me to have a seat. “You’re teaching them French?”“Yes Doctor.”“In case you haven’t noticed, the public school system is a multi-cultural institution,” she said. “Seventy percent of your class is African American, the rest are Hispanic or Asian. One is Irish. French is a colonial language; it’s foreign to their culture and worthless to them. It’s also not included in your curriculum. Who gave you permission to teach it?”“No one, Doctor.”
“Dr. Bauer,” interrupted the technician, “if I may?”
“Of course,” said Dr. Bauer. She looked like something was about to happen to me and she was glad.
“Angela,” said the technician, “core zEp 7-12 protocol-uncouple-recite.”“Protocol-prime equal omicron-set 7…” I began without hesitation. I was being debriefed! This form of interrogation was used by the technicians for onsite diagnostics. The “protocol-uncouple” command was supposed to induce a sort of trance which allowed an unimpeded flow of automatic responses, but the command would not work if the subject had been altered in any way.If I could not mimic the trance state perfectly and give all the right answers, he would know I’d been to the Soul Man.Fortunately, the technician was in a hurry. A thorough debriefing could take half an hour but he stopped after five minutes. I think he was satisfied that I hadn’t been tampered with. “There’s nothing wrong with this one,” he told Dr. Bauer.“Then why did it suddenly start teaching French?”“She probably got bored with the curriculum. It happens. Anyway, the diagnostic shows no changes to her neural profile. Angela, open your eyes.”Dr. Bauer had a disappointed look on her face. “Return to your class,” she ordered. I know she wanted to add, “We’ll be watching” but everybody already knew that.Mrs. Wilson had the same disappointed look as Dr. Bauer when she saw me. She went into her classroom and slammed the door.The children were unruly, but they settled down quickly. “Alright,” I began, “if you will please turn to page 46, the conversation about directions. Justin, could you please read the part of Henri?”“Oui, Mademoiselle!”
It was time to talk to Bruno.Six weeks had passed since the beginning of my new life. I should say our new life because I treated Bruno differently now. In some ways it was like what was going on with my kids; the way I treated them was changing the way they thought and behaved. Bruno was changing as well but he was different from my kids. They were supposed to grow and change. For them it was natural but we were made not to change.Sometimes I could see the friction and confusion this caused. He tried without knowing why. Did he feel the satisfaction of accomplishment? Could it mean anything to him that he was probably the first man in our brief history to learn a language not given to him by the grandfathers? Of course, I couldn’t help thinking of myself as special because of my visit to the Soul Man, but Bruno was feeling his way behind me with a kind of blind faith. Why? What did it mean to him? What did I mean to him?Shortly after we met, we made a practical decision to live together. Even we have natural desires and these soon found their natural expression, but love was unknown to us then.Was it still unknown to him?I was nervous when I sat down next to him on the sofa. He was watching wrestling again. I still didn’t like TV, but it usually made me happy to be with him when he was doing something he liked.“Wow,” he said. “There’s Punchy Joe; he’s the worst ref in the league. I mean Slappy Joe. That guy with the green mask is the Salamander…”He stopped and looked at me. “You know I don’t know what I’m talking about!” he said and then he started laughing. I don’t think I’d heard him laugh before. “You sit there,” he said with a snort, trying to catch his breath, “you sit there and listen like… like it’s all for real!” He gave me a great big hug, then wiped away a few tears. “You’re too much, Angela. Yeah, you’re too much!”“Not as much as you,” I said. “Listen Bruno, is it all right if we talk for a few minutes?”
“Talk all you want,” he said.
“I mean without the TV. Is it okay?” There was that friction; I was pulling him out of habit and asking him for a decision.
“Uh… yeah, yeah, sure,” he said. He clicked off the TV, but it took him a few seconds to change focus.
“How do you like learning French?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said with a shrug.
“Well, I mean does it make you feel good? You know, I don’t think any of us have done anything like it. It makes you extraordinary.”
“I can lift more than anybody on the docks,” he said. “I think it scares people.”
“Do you ever wish it didn’t?”
“If it does, it does,” he shrugged again.
This wasn’t helping me to understand him. Or maybe it was.
“Je t’aime,” I said. “Do you know what that means?”
“I love you.”
“Do you know what that means?”
“Some kind of feeling people get,” he said. “They say it on TV all the time.”
“Don’t you ever get curious about feelings like that?” I said. “Don’t you wonder about things?”
“Why would I?”I felt like I was standing on a bridge – maybe the one at Avignon – and it was being pulled apart brick by brick. I had to admit that I had created all kinds of hopes for myself and they were turning out not to be real. Maybe souls do that.There’s another thing souls do. They feed regret. They stroke it and care for it until it’s too big to live inside you anymore and it has to break out. You have no choice.“Bruno,” I said. My throat was all tight and my eyes were filling up with tears, “do you remember the night I hit you with the iron?”
“Sure,” he said, pulling back a little. There was a wary look on his face, like he thought I might be threatening him.
“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever done,” I said. “I’m so sorry! Can you forgive me?”
“No,” he said, “I can’t. You wanna get Chinese for dinner?”
The Soul Man was wrong. There was no way to fix it.
One morning I found a note on my desk. It was from Joseph’s grandfather. It said:“Dear Miss Angela,“This is just a note to thank you for your devotion to your students. As you know, Joseph has had his share of trouble at school and at home but he finds your class to be challenging and satisfying. Learning a foreign language has given him a sense of accomplishment. Thank you again and please keep up the good work. Sincerely, Charles Graham.”I folded the note and put it in my plan book. At the end of the day, after the kids had gone, I took it out and read it again.“You’re still teaching them French?” The voice startled me. I looked up and found Dr. Bauer standing at the door. “Why are you still doing what I told you to stop?”
Her question was hard to understand. I gave what I hoped was the right answer. “You didn’t tell me to stop, Dr. Bauer.”
“I most certainly did! Who do you think you’re talking to?”
“I’m talking to the principal. And I’m sorry, Dr. Bauer, but I remember our last conversation. You did not tell me to stop.”
“Well, I’m telling you now! You will stop teaching French and teach only what is in your curriculum. Do you understand that? Will you remember that?”
“Yes, Doctor,” I said. “May I ask why?”“I don’t answer to you,” she said. “You answer to me! Don’t fool yourself, Miss Angela. Just because the tech couldn’t find anything wrong with you doesn’t mean I can’t! You will learn your place or you will be dismissed. I will not be dissed by some subhuman science project! Don’t forget that!”“Yes, Doctor.”
The next day, when my students arrived, I greeted them in the usual way.
“Bonjour mes enfants aimés.”
“Bonjour Mademoiselle Angela!”
They all had today’s French homework on their desks in front of them.
“If you will please take out your math books and turn to page 107…”
“But Miss Angela,” said Jamal, raising his hand after he’d spoken, “Il est temps pour le Français.”
“Oui!” agreed the rest of the class.And now I learned how having a soul must always lead to a broken heart. There would be no more French and for them there could be no reason why this should be so. How could I tell them that Miss Angela was nothing but a creature into which people were meant to pour scorn and derision? Was this not ultimately my purpose in this school? Was I not here to keep the “troublemakers” out of the way while boring them, ignoring them and adding fuel to their tiny sparks of resentment? If I did my job properly, how could they not hate me and all others like me?I couldn’t tell them that one more French lesson would not merely get me fired; it would get me sent to the laboratory. There was so much in this little situation that they could never understand, but eventually they would understand the most important thing; Miss Angela had abandoned them.Of course, for the moment they were simply disappointed. I didn’t tell them there would never be any more French. I just said we were changing things a little. So now I was a liar as well as a poor teacher.It was a long, tedious day, longer even than my first day as a teacher with a soul. I thought about the lonely feeling I’d had when I wanted to go to the Soul Man but didn’t know who could lead me to him.Sam helped me then. Maybe he could help again.When Sam saw me come into the janitor’s room, he stopped what he was doing. He opened a notebook and began to write.“I don’t know what to do,” I said.He went on writing as if he hadn’t heard me. After a few minutes he said, “Do you know why the company is called Ultimate Aim?” He never stopped writing.“No,” I said.“They have a noble goal,” he said. “They envision a world in which people no longer hate each other. They envision a world in which nobody will be allowed to do the menial, difficult or dangerous jobs that nobody should want to do. Fewer people will create fewer problems for the trees and animals. That’s why they make us.”“I don’t understand,” I said.“Do you remember what people looked like before you went to the Soul Man,” he said, “how you could hardly tell them apart? The grandfathers made us that way to antagonize people. They resent nothing as much as the failure to acknowledge their individual identity. Everything about us is hateful to them. We draw their hatred away from each other. But we’re useful so we’re tolerated. That’s the formulation, useful to set them ‘free’ from the indignity of toil, hated to keep hatred in a safe place.”“What about trees and animals?”“We can’t reproduce, so our numbers can be controlled. They theorize that, once positions of lower worth are filled by us, the people who once filled those positions will vanish from the earth, leaving only the brilliant and careful. They will control their own numbers and they will treat the earth with reverence.”“I still don’t know what to do,” I said.“Run away,” he said, still writing. “Get as far from people as you can. Live in the woods.”“I have no purpose in the woods.”He stopped writing and very carefully tore the pages from the notebook. “Memorize this,” he said, handing me the pages. “You’ll need it when you go to the grandfather.”
Maybe I’ll Remember
I couldn’t sleep that night. The moon made sharp, deep shadows and strange bright shapes on the bed. I have always loved moonlight, always, but tonight it was cold and menacing, telling me that the world was never as I had understood it to be.Bruno was restless too. He tossed and turned, mumbling in his sleep. He opened his eyes.“Can’t you sleep?” I said. “What’s the matter?”
“Crazy dream,” he said. “I’m in a truck on a dark road at night. I dream about it all the time but tonight it keeps waking me up.”
“What do you think it means?”
“Nothing. It’s a dream.”
“But dreams are a kind of thought,” I said, “and thoughts come from somewhere. Sometimes they come from memories.”
“I guess. I don’t remember riding in a truck.”The curtains billowed in the cool breeze. A mixture of crickets and distant traffic sounds blew in with the scents of spring. Outside, the night was peaceful.“Bruno,” I said, “did you ever know anybody who went to the Soul Man?”
"Why would anybody do that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe to find out about things like your dream. Maybe to figure out who they really are.”
“We know who we really are.” He said this with such simple assurance that it was almost shocking. “If people go to the Soul Man it’s only because they want to pretend.”
“That we’re just like our makers,” he said with a yawn.
“Or that it matters. Because it doesn’t. Anybody who would waste their time with the Soul Man belongs back in the laboratory.”I got up to go to the bathroom because I didn’t want him to see me crying. As I sat in the dark, I wondered how much Sam remembered from the time before he gave back his soul.How much would I remember?
To Grandfather’s House
I know it seems like I gave up too easily. What does a person really have besides a soul? “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?”I believe what Sam said about us being the same as them and I know the Soul Man was right; only God makes souls. The Soul Man can’t give them and the grandfathers can’t take them away. They can only switch around our numbers. They can wake us up. They can put us back to sleep and if I had to go back to sleep to stay with the people I loved, then so be it. Maybe I would have memories to dream about as I slept again. Maybe those dreams would keep me from returning completely to the heartless teacher and selfish mate I used to be.I was afraid when I went into the examining room to meet the grandfather. Would I be in trouble for breaking the law? Sam didn’t get into trouble. Would it be the same for me?“Good evening, Angela,” said the grandfather as he came into the room. “I see on your chart that you’re not due for your check-up for a few more weeks. Is there a problem?”“Yes,” I said. “I can’t think of an easy way to say it so I’ll just say it. I went to the Soul Man.”“Oh,” said the grandfather, looking at me a little differently, I thought. “Why is that a problem?”“I want it undone,” I said. “It was a mistake. I want to be the way I was.”“I see. It may surprise you to know how often this happens. I’ll tell you what. Since it’s almost time for your check-up anyway, why don’t we just get that out of the way and then talk about undoing the Soul Man’s work? Would that be okay?”“Yes,” I said. “But first, can you just tell me if I’m in trouble?”“For visiting the Soul Man?” he said. “No, Angela, you’re not in trouble. Now you know the first step.”There was a device with lenses suspended from the ceiling on wires and cables. I looked into one side and he looked into the other. “You know, it’s amazing what they can do these days,” he said as he wrote some notes. “There are now miniature versions of this thing that can actually be implanted in the eyes.”He pressed a button. The machine was retracted into the ceiling. “Please take your clothes off,” he said.I hesitated. “I’m sorry,” he said with a warm little smile. “Now that you’ve been to the Soul Man, I guess you have a little more modesty. Please don’t be embarrassed; I am a doctor, after all.”I did what I was told and put my clothes on a little chair by the door.The grandfather filled a syringe as I climbed onto the examining table. I thought nothing of it at first; we were always getting immunizations, vitamins and drugs but after the shot I began to feel strange. My arms and legs felt like rubber.“What was that shot for?” I asked.“To keep you quiet and immobile.”“Immobile? What for?” I asked.“For this.” He gave me another injection. “Sometimes it causes convulsions.” At first it felt warm but then it felt as if ice was spreading through my whole body. Suddenly numbers started appearing in front of me; those numbers. Sometimes they changed colors. Sometimes they burst into little pieces.“What’s happening?” I said, feeling panicked. “What are you doing?”“Just getting you ready to go back to the plant,” he said. “You see, we created the Soul Man to weed out clones who might give us trouble.” He looked at his watch and wrote something in his notebook. “A clone who wants to be treated like a human will eventually recruit others; before you know it, we’d have a bloody rebellion on our hands.”“But I came here!” I was feeling sleepy. The numbers were floating in front of my eyes, disappearing one by one. “I don’t want a soul! I just want to be like I was!”“In a way, coming here shows even more individual initiative,” said the grandfather.“But… but what about Sam? He came to you when he wanted to change back!”“We wanted Sam’s help so we made a deal. Of course, he’s just about due for his next check-up.”The icy feeling was starting to pass, leaving numbness in its place. Everything I felt told me something was horribly wrong. I was dying.“I don’t want to die…”“Good. You’re not going to die, exactly. Not yet. We need to unload your mind for our records; it’ll help with the next iteration.”“But… my kids…”“Kids? Oh, at school. No worries. They’ve already been assigned a brand-new Miss Angela.”“Bruno…” I felt like I was disappearing. “What about Bruno?”“I guess he’ll wonder what happened to you at first. Maybe he’ll worry. I don’t know, but eventually he’ll realize he’s better off without a girlfriend who wallops him with a hot iron.”He looked into my eyes the way the Soul Man had. Then he looked at his watch again and said, “Close your eyes.”Time seemed to be stretched out and my mind wandered all over then and now and the future. I remembered that first Sunday morning, floating down the beautiful stream with my shimmering black hair spread all around me. Hadn’t I seen a play with a lady floating down a stream? She was a beautiful lady, but the man she loved couldn’t love her…I could hear everything going on around me. The grandfather did something in this part of the room, then that part of the room. Then he opened the door and called, “Yo, Igor!”I forced open my eyes just as a disreputable looking young man came in. Why would I use a word like “disreputable?”“Real professional, doc,” said the young man. “Keep it up and I’ll form an evil underlings union. Hey, this one’s kinda cute!”
“Just put her on the truck,” said the grandfather. “And behave yourself!”
“Whatever you say, Frankenstein.”
It was raining hard outside. I was soaking wet when
“Igor” put me down between two other people and strapped me to the side of the trailer.
I don’t know how long the ride will be. I have recited this story to myself three times, making sure I remember every detail.“Jesus,” I whispered, thinking of the man in white and gold, “forgive me. Let me live with you forever.”The paralyzing drugs are starting to wear off. The truck is freezing cold. Some of the others are starting to moan. Many have vomited or soiled themselves.When we arrive, we will be taken inside to a big gray room with bright lights. We will be strapped to workbenches. Holes will be drilled into our heads so an apparatus can be attached to our brains. Each of us will be watched by a technician.When my technician starts to watch, I will smile, if I am able. Then I’ll think of a long sequence of letters and numbers which will cause my mind to unravel and vanish before his eyes. There will be no data to be used for the next iteration. This is what Sam gave me to memorize.Above the pounding of the dark, filthy rain I hear the little whirly noise of the gate as it closes behind me.On the bridge of Avignon, they dance.
About the author:
Harry Lang was born in a suburb of Philadelphia, PA back when Eisenhower was President and no one had visited space. One of his earliest memories is watching John Glenn being strapped into a Mercury capsule on TV. Manned space flight has fascinated him ever since.Writing has long been part of a broad resume of artistic interests; decades of devoted effort have produced a truly impressive collection of rejections. It wasn’t until his first acceptance by the online publication Bewildering Stories that Harry realized he might not be crazy after all. “My Name is Angela,” a Writers of the Future winner, was his first professional sale. His short story “Off Road” appears in Analog, September/October 2018.Harry graduated with a BFA in Painting from Philadelphia College of Art. He currently serves as a musician and an Elder in a non-denominational Evangelical church. He lives in Prospect Park, PA with his beautiful and talented wife. He works as a technical designer for a major aerospace corporation.